Liturgy Matters — The liturgy is communal prayer

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

By Dr. Judy Bullock

For those of us whose first experience of the celebration of Mass was the pre-Vatican II model, the changes that took place in the late 1960s were extraordinary.

For example, each country was given permission to celebrate the Mass in its own mother tongue, instead of Latin. We were able to hear the prayers and the readings from Scripture in a language we could understand.

Perhaps even more startling than this, we were expected to engage in the liturgy with full, conscious and active participation. Instead of the servers and the choir serving as the designated responders during the Mass, all the people were to respond, sing and pray many parts of the Mass.

These changes, along with many others, were intended to make it clear that liturgy is communal prayer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1140) confirms this teaching as it poses the question, “Who celebrates the liturgy? It is the whole community, the Body of Christ united with its Head, that celebrates.”

Two characteristics of the liturgy attest to this communal nature: the use of plural language and the dialogical form.

With few exceptions, the texts of the Mass use the plural form: “we,” “us” and “our.” This is not a change that was made after Vatican II. These texts were in the plural form in Latin as well. When we celebrate any liturgy, the prayer is not the prayer of an individual but is the worship of the entire church. In other words, the church at prayer is always the body of Christ praying with Christ our Head. Even when the priest is the lone voice, he is addressing God in our name.

As further proof of the communal nature, there is ongoing dialogue that takes place during the liturgy. The dialogical form confirms that the liturgy is not private prayer or celebrated by one individual. Most dialogues are given out by one person and responded to by the congregation.

The priest, the deacon, the cantor, the choir, and the reader are all engaged in dialogue with the rest of the assembly. The roles and responsibilities are clear.

For true dialogue to take place and be most effective, the one that initiates the dialogue does not also give the response. For example, the priest announces “The Mystery of Faith,” but does not join the people when they respond. We each have our parts.

Another example of this dialogical form is the responsorial psalm. The cantor has a part and the rest of the assembly has a part. The cantor sings the antiphon and the assembly repeats it. The cantor sings a verse of the psalm and the rest of the assembly responds with the antiphon between each verse. The cantor listens attentively to the response of the people but does not join in. We each have our parts in the dialogues of the Mass.

This is why the church offers the option to use seasonal psalmody in place of the psalm of the day if it is not well-known. This practice helps to develop the repertoire of the people over a period of time and helps them to respond from the heart. So let us be especially attentive to our parts in these dialogues.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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